KANDAHAR, Afghanistan—As Afghanistan plummets deeper into a devastating economic crisis, the Taliban have declared a war on drugs that snatches away the sole cash crops relied on by many struggling rural families—opium poppy and ephedra, a plant that contains a precursor for manufacturing methamphetamine—putting millions at risk of starvation and potentially alienating the group’s own long-suffering support base.
High-ranking Talibs insist that drugs have been fully eradicated from the country and the ban is a matter of ethics; opium and meth are simply “dangerous for the world,” as one senior narcotics official put it. Farmers, low-level soldiers, and rural leaders say they’ve been told it’s a necessary sacrifice to secure recognition and desperately needed humanitarian aid. But in Kabul, where prices have soared and users are rounded up and imprisoned in hellish so-called rehab centers, dealers and users are adamant that supply is undiminished—and that Taliban soldiers still control the trade.
The road from Kabul to Kandahar—Afghanistan’s former capital in the south, where most opium poppies are grown—is just 300 miles long but takes 15 hours to drive. When we made the trip in October 2022, it was peak harvest time for the region’s famous pomegranates, but the landscape was arid. Clouds of dust and sand periodically swirled around our 1991 Toyota Camry, making it harder to spot craters left by roadside bombs or even the groups of small children kneeling in the middle of the road, begging with hands outstretched to oncoming trucks that lurched to avoid them just in time.
In Kandahar province, we were directed along a maze of rocky tracks toward the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by a Taliban soldier; he had been assigned to us for “protection” at a crumbling local military base. Every river and stream had dried up; the only signs of water access were occasional solar panels, used to generate electricity to pump water from deep underground. Until the ban, this scant water supply was used to irrigate the poppy fields that carpeted the area and provided a rare source of income to Kandahar’s rural poor. Twenty years of war scarred the hills and farms. There are bomb craters, ruined schoolhouses, burnt husks of police cars, and even the grave of a child killed in a U.S. airstrike, but the death toll of the conflict could pale in comparison with that of a newly waged war on drugs.
Having leveraged the drug trade to fund their insurgency for decades, in 2021 the Taliban outlawed the harvesting of ephedra, which grows wild in the mountains and from which ephedrine, a meth precursor, can be extracted, and the following April abruptly banned opium cultivation and production. This move blindsided many farmers in Afghanistan’s poppy-growing heartlands. Standing outside his shed-like motorbike repair shop on the side of the road in Kandahar province, Wakil Ahmad pointed to an empty swath of land behind the building.
“Before, this was a poppy farm,” he said. Six months earlier, just a few weeks before harvesting began, the Taliban told his family that this harvest would be their last. If they continued to grow poppies, they would be fined and thrown in jail. “The fields are useless now,” Ahmad said. “We lost everything. We don’t have any other options. We can’t grow anything else.”
With the country grappling with pariah status and the specter of financial collapse, the decision to eliminate opium poppies and processing of ephedra has baffled Afghans and international observers alike. Afghanistan’s narcotics market earns far more money for its people than any other commodity in the country: the total value of all legal products exported from Afghanistan totaled just $870 million in 2019, which is dwarfed by an illicit opiate market reaching an estimated value of $1.2-$2.1 billion.
With international aid and trade largely suspended, opium and meth became the last economic lifeline for many in provinces such as Kandahar and Helmand. In a country where the public sector minimum wage is under $60 per month, foraging for ephedra can bring in $30 per day, which, although laborious, takes no special skills or investment—traders even travel to pick up the product. In the traditional Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, poppy cultivation raises around $400 million a year for farming families, including the 30-year-old Talib resting his Kalashnikov rifle on his knees in the front seat of our car. The soldier said he has received no salary for the 15 years that he has served in the Taliban forces and doesn’t know how he’ll support his family without growing opium.
The Taliban last attempted to wipe out opium in 2000, with short-lived success. After the U.S. invasion in 2001, production saw a general upward trend, and cultivation spiked in 2017, providing crucial income for insurgents—including, notoriously, the Taliban themselves. Researchers such as David Mansfield argue that it’s highly unlikely the Talib leaders who issued the 2000 ban were trying to artificially inflate prices with a view to cashing in, but as the price of opium increased in the ensuing two decades, they certainly had no qualms openly profiting from it.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported an uptick in opium production after the Taliban seized power in August 2021, including a 32 percent rise in 2022. This production was concentrated in the southern provinces of Nimroz, Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, and Zabul, which together account for nearly three-quarters of the total area under cultivation. Kandahar saw 12,300 extra hectares dedicated to poppy in 2022, a 72 percent increase from the year before. Processing of ephedra has also increased since 2017, supplying a cottage industry in ephedrine extraction at hundreds of meth labs across the country.
Back in Kabul, local street dealer Khalid scoffed at the idea that the Taliban have stepped back from the drug trade. Heroin and meth are typically bought in bulk from an area called Shahrak-e Aria (close to Kabul Airport), he said, and he sees “a lot of Talibs there” selling wholesale to dealers. Khalid said he has also bought drugs from a Taliban office in Shahr-e Naw, a largely upscale neighborhood known for its manicured public park but where, just outside the railings, we saw at least 50 men huddled around opium and meth pipes in midafternoon.
While it’s getting harder to smuggle illicit drugs into the capital through the Taliban checkpoints, Khalid said, at one wholesaler where he buys smaller quantities for street dealing, kilo packets of meth are packaged with an official Taliban seal, the symbol of the Islamic Emirate. This, Khalid believes, lets drugs pass through the “Kabul doors”—in other words, they are waved through checkpoints without closer inspection.
Analysts watching the situation closely say they haven’t seen evidence of stockpiling, but domestic availability of illicit drugs appears unaffected even as prices soar in anticipation of future shortages. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said she fears that individual Taliban commanders may exploit price surges to increase their own heroin and meth portfolios, by allowing pockets of production to continue under their control in order to inflate their own profits.
On its own, the uninterrupted supply doesn’t prove that opium is still being cultivated in Afghanistan—Felbab-Brown says it typically takes two years of supply restrictions to affect availability on the street—but it contradicts claims made by government officials that all opium and heroin has been eradicated from the country.
There are other signs that some production has continued with the knowledge and blessing of Taliban commanders. Some farmers in the southern provinces told Radio Azadi last October that they were allowed to go ahead with their harvests, and a major heroin-trafficking operation run by Afghan nationals was busted in India’s Punjab region in January. Whether this is a deliberate attempt to shore up control of a smaller, more valuable trade or simply a case of opportunistic factions exploiting the situation to enrich themselves, Talibs appear to be the only winners of the ban.
Profit margins for opium farmers and sharecroppers are modest—perhaps a few hundred dollars per hectare in a normal year—but as our Talib soldier-escort explained, this far outstrips profits from crops such as wheat. In theory, having opium farmers switch to wheat should help combat what the UNODC describes as “one of the worst food insecurity crises worldwide,” but in reality, the slender margins would leave farmers with little means to buy any other food, let alone medicine or other basic necessities. Alternatives such as pomegranates are better earners, but orchards take years to fruit, making it an impossible ask for communities living hand to mouth. No stakeholder who is demanding that farmers transition away from opium—not the Taliban, the former Afghan government, the United States, or the UNODC—has been willing to foot the bill to cover rural incomes in a way that would allow farmers to transition away from poppies.
Low-level growers stay poor, but those further up the chain make serious money. During the civil war, the Taliban in some areas under their control taxed farmers and smugglers around 10 percent of their earnings, while some warlords and Taliban factions controlled parts of the trade directly. Badly paid soldiers and police officers with the Afghan government demanded significant bribes to spare poppy farms from destruction, while senior officials paid up to $150,000 for governorships in remote posts where they could exploit the trade for personal gain. In the early years of the U.S. invasion, Washington was reluctant to push for poppy eradication, aware this would alienate rural communities and drive them closer to the Taliban; reports even emerged of U.S. Marines guarding poppy fields for farmers. But over the following decades, enemy combatants increasingly relied on drug profits, and the United States switched to spending billions of dollars on counternarcotics programs. This included aerial bombings of suspected meth- and opiate-processing labs and trucks. According to testimony given by Felbab-Brown to the U.K. Parliament in 2020, most of these efforts were “ineffective or outright counterproductive” from an economic, political, and peacekeeping point of view, serving only to impoverish and alienate farmers, pushing them closer to Taliban soldiers who offered to protect their livelihoods.
Most illicit drugs produced in Afghanistan are destined for export. Tons of heroin, meth, and hashish were seized by Pakistani authorities in January 2022, including a record 130-kilogram haul of heroin intercepted by customs at the Torkham border crossing. Demand for meth is also soaring among Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan and Iran. But plenty of Afghans are hooked, too. Two decades of relentless fighting, brutal terrorist attacks, and economic chaos, followed by the return of the Taliban regime, have left more than half of Afghans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Despair and trauma breed addiction; there are now an estimated 3.5 million drug addicts in Afghanistan—nearly one-tenth of the population.
A string of reports and documentaries over the past year paint a grim picture of violent crackdowns on addicts and brutal conditions inside underfunded rehabilitation facilities, where there is little food to go around and malnourished patients frequently die from disease or the effects of heroin withdrawal.
“They give you no food or water. Beat you like an enemy,” said Khalid, the heroin and meth user-turned-dealer in Kabul, who said he was arrested in one of the early Taliban crackdowns and sent to Camp Phoenix, the former U.S. military base now repurposed as a Taliban-run rehab hospital. “There’s no food for us, so we have to eat grass, but if they see us eating grass, then they beat us again. They say they want to get you off drugs, but it is like torture.”
Potential victims of the crackdown extend outside national borders. Afghanistan supplies around 80 percent of the world’s heroin, including to many European nations where fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is yet to penetrate the market. There is no evidence to suggest that heroin addiction or demand diminishes amid supply shortages, but in the past, disruptions have seen synthetic alternatives flood the market and overdose deaths soar as users struggle to adapt to massive changes in purity levels.
“There’s an assumption that the Taliban are the biggest gang in town, but transnational organized crime has become much more monopolized, more cooperative, and more powerful since the Taliban were last in power,” said Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer in the United Kingdom who now works with the drug policy reform organization LEAP UK. Woods fears a “fentanyl catastrophe” if the ban is effective. “If they do successfully clamp down on heroin this time, it’ll just be more cost-effective to make a quick shift to synthetics,” he said.
Senior Taliban leaders insist that the drug bans are ethically motivated, but their objections appear selective. Last September saw the triumphant return from the United States of Kandahar native Bashir Noorzai, a notorious drug trafficker and Taliban financier, in a prisoner swap that saw the man known as the “Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan” greeted at Kabul Airport by cheering crowds and senior Taliban officials. In Kandahar, village chiefs, soldiers, and farmers offer a more pragmatic explanation.
“Our leader mentioned that the foreign governments are not happy about us doing poppy farming. They said we needed to ban this to be recognized as a government,” said Ular Majeed, the head of a Taliban outpost close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where he is responsible for 10,000 households in an area rife with cross-border smuggling routes. Now that they’ve fulfilled their end of the bargain, he said, “it’s time for [the U.S.] government to do what they said and recognize us, so you can help us.”
Back in Kabul, Taliban officials categorically deny any such negotiations are underway. “We wish that other countries would work with us to stop drugs and would help us, but we have not had any contact,” said senior counternarcotics official Mun Ali.
In an email, a U.S. State Department spokesperson described the ban as “promising,” albeit contingent on seeing a meaningful reduction in poppy cultivation or meth production. Asked if the United States had engaged in dialogue with the Taliban ahead of the announcement, the spokesperson replied: “As we’ve made clear, we’ll continue to engage the Taliban pragmatically to advance American interests.”
“This is very much a replay of the 1990s. They were making that same pitch, bargaining and consistently hoping that the ban would give them international legitimacy,” Felbab-Brown said. But from an institutional and regime survival perspective, she said, “it fundamentally threatens their ability to hold onto power.”
“The Taliban could be lining themselves up for the ‘well, we’re only growing poppy because you didn’t give us the humanitarian aid you promised’ approach. That’s quite feasible,” said Steve Brookings, a former chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy in Kabul and former special advisor to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Even if officials want to kick the dependency on illicit income, it may prove financially impossible.
Members of the Taliban are often perceived as less corruptible and bribe-seeking than their predecessors, but the cracks are beginning to show. In Kandahar’s villages, soldiers and rural leaders admit they haven’t been paid in months or years. This may have been palatable while the Taliban were the underdogs, but now they’re in charge of the country’s finances—and it was their decision to ban poppy, many unpaid workers’ sole source of income. Meanwhile in Kabul, Talibs flaunt the trappings of their newfound power, cruising around the city in luxury Toyota Land Cruisers and the occasional Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon.
Asked if Afghan families facing starvation following the ban would receive financial support, Ali, the senior counternarcotics official, replied that, as good Muslims, Afghans know “obeying their leader is the most important thing,” dismissing the question with the flick of a wrist adorned with a huge gold watch. For years, Taliban commanders depended on loyalists to shoulder hardship in pursuit of victory, but if peace fails to deliver security and rural supporters feel betrayed by the widening wealth gap, support may evaporate—and lower-ranking Talibs will need to make a living wherever they can.
“You think the Taliban are good men who would not do bad things?” asked Khalid, sighing bitterly. “Yesterday, they couldn’t afford vehicles, but now they have all these [expensive] cars. They couldn’t afford to get married, but now they have three wives. This is their business: When they come and arrest you and take your drugs, they just give them to someone else to sell.”
Unsurprisingly, the Taliban vociferously deny these accusations.
“Our soldiers and staff fought for 20 years. They will never take bribes,” said Mawlavi Shir Ali Hemaad, the head of investigations at the Taliban’s organized crime unit. “We were the ones wearing jackets full of bombs. We were careless about ourselves, so how can we care about money now? No, never. It will never happen.”
But without food, income, medicine, or access to basic services, the costs of this loyalty will be hard to bear. To hold onto power, the Taliban need to choose their battles. Unless they can generate economic benefits from this ban fast—for the whole country, not just a handful of their own men—a new war on drugs will become a costly political mistake and one that only exacerbates the misery of addicts in Afghanistan and beyond.